The Arlington County Board has gone back to school.

The place: The renowned Wharton School of Finance and Commerce in Philadephia.

The subject: How to pick a new county manager to run the increasingly complex business of an urban county.

And if some board members were skeptical of the trip, suggested by board Chairman Stephen H. Detwiler, by the end of the day-and-a-half of seminars, all five were praising the guidance they had received.

"It accomplished a lot more than I expected and got us all thinking in the same areas," said Republican board member Walter L. Frankland.

"We got a lot further than we would have gotten had we tried to sort this out ourselves without outside, competent professionals," echoed Ellen M. Bozman, a Democratic-backed independent.

Added Republican board member Dorothy T. Grotos: "The board has never gotten together and discussed this, so it was excellent to have some uninterrupted time when we could sit down together and talk."

It probably will be next April before the board selects a successor to W. Vernon Ford, fired in August by the three Republican board members, a controversial move that prompted Bozman and Democrat John G. Milliken to complain about "back room" political maneuvering that excluded the two minority members from the decision. Ford, who had worked for the county 22 years, had been county manager since 1976.

Absent during the Wharton sessions, all agreed, was the fervid partisanship that has sometimes split the minority and majority members on major decisions, such as the Ford dismissal. Instead, board members sat together at classroom conference tables for lectures and discussions and munched on box dinners of chicken salad, rolls with brie cheese, and apples and brownies.

"They were frank, full, comfortable discussions," Milliken said. "There were certainly differences of opinion, but I wouldn't characterize them as partisan. All five made an effort not to let that enter into this."

The sessions, held two weeks ago at Wharton's Management and Behavioral Science Center, were conducted by four Wharton instructors. Thomas N. Gilmore, associate director of the center and one of the instructors, said the center has done an "extensive amount of strategic planning and organizational work" for governors' offices, federal agencies and local governments.

Among the issues discussed, according to the board members, were present and future problems in Arlington.

"We talked about Arlington today and the types of major problems we feel policy makers and leaders will be facing in the future," Detwiler said. "Fiscal policy was near the top of that list," as were "community development issues ranging from economic development to the social and cultural as well."

A major function of the sessions was to form a broad outline of the type of county manager Arlington should seek, and several discussions concerned the roles of the county manager and the county board as they relate to policy-making and daily administration of the government.

Board members also bombarded Wharton instructors with ideas on the kind of manager the county needs. Wharton analysts will organize and condense those suggestions in a report to be sent to the board. That report is expected to be used as the basis for forming a job description when the board formally advertises for applicants.

One result of the sessions was the agreement by all five board members that an outside consulting firm should be hired to do initial screening of what the county expects to be hundreds of applicants. Detwiler emphasized, however, that the county board will have a major role in the consultants' work.

"We want to do a selective search process using outside consultants -- almost a 'by-invitation' process -- but we're certainly not going to turn away people who apply to us, and we have had a few already," Detwiler said.

When Ford was appointed, Bozman recalled, the board hired no paid outside consultant but relied on professional "knowledgeable sources" to help draft a job description.

"The board was different and times were different last time," Bozman said. "We're spending a little more time this time on spelling out what the manager's job is and spending more time to talk about it."

The board expects to begin tackling the details of hiring a new manager as soon as it receives the Wharton report, probably by this week. After a draft job description is completed, the board plans to schedule public hearings to seek citizens' comments before making a final decision on the manager's duties.

At that point, the county will formally advertise the opening, and Detwiler expects 150 to 200 applicants, to be whittled down to 10 or fewer who will be interviewed personally by the board.

The board appropriated $3,000 to cover the Wharton consultants' fee and travel expenses, which included five round-trip, coach-class fares on Amtrak. It has not set a figure for a search consultant or a salary for the new manager. Detwiler said he expects the salary to be in the "mid-60s." Ford's annual salary this year was $59,000.